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Disaster Recovery Done Right
Jeremy Faludi, 3 Aug 05


Soldier's Grove, Wisconsin is a tiny town that suffered a disastrous flood in the 50's. The standard solution then, as now, was to build levees. However, when the town was smashed again in the 70's by an even bigger flood, they decided to do something smarter. They reinvented their town--moved it to higher ground, and made it the first "solar village" in the US. Almost thirty years later, their town's average building performance is still far ahead of the rest of the nation, and by planning the village's reconstruction on a systems-level, they were able to also fix other pre-existing problems along the way.

The US Department of Energy's Operation Fresh Start is dedicated to sustainable redevelopment of disaster-struck locations. One of their success-story pages describes Soldier's Grove as follows:

First, by opting to relocate, the villagers chose to work with the river rather than attempt to control it. They chose mitigation at a time when dams and levees were hailed as monuments to society’s dominion over nature.

Second, Soldiers Grove saw the relocation project not just as an opportunity to duplicate their old town, but as a chance to create something much better. Rather than rush to get buildings up and running as quickly as possible, the villagers took their time.

Perhaps the most dramatic outcome of that careful planning process was the decision to make all of the new town center buildings energy-efficient and solar-heated... The village passed ordinances stipulating that new buildings be built to specific thermal performance standards and obtain at least 50 percent of their heating needs with solar systems...

The energy efficiency and solar ordinances helped to keep valuable energy dollars from escaping the local economy. The old floodplain was developed into a well-used municipal park. The town center was once again adjacent to the state highway, which had bypassed the old town in the 1950s, hurting businesses.

And remember, this transformation was cost-effecitve in the 70's (construction took ten years, finishing in 1983); with today's technology, the rebuilt community would be even more energy-independent. Also note that this was not some granola-hippy town, it is an ordinary midwest village, as you can see by looking at photos of it.

Some organizations are trying to do sustainable disaster-redevelopment today, such as UN-Habitat and our own in tsunami-torn parts of southeast Asia. And how do you make things like this happen? Back in the US, the DOE has a whole Guide to Sustainable Redevelopment for Disaster-Affected Communities, which they wrote in 1994 and apparently believe has stood the test of time. Keys to success seem to be similar to most green development projects--integrated systems-thinking and deep community involvement.

Hundred-year floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and the like have always happened, but today's global population and sprawl (not to mention climate change) have now caused significant numbers of people to live in places prone to occasional disasters, which has not been true in the past. If people wise up to these methods, we could see the reinvention of whole cities in places like southern California, New Orleans, and Florida, just to name a few.

(thanks to Alex Wagner for the tip.)

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Great item.

Soldier's Grove's results may be a model, but the means aren't (replacing the whole town?).  The thing to worry about is that shortsightedness may cause people to abandon buildings or entire cities due to unaffordable energy costs rather than reconstruct them, and the investment required for this may not be available.  The abandoned cities of dead Central American civilizations should be our cautionary tales, not our models.

This is one reason I'm pushing cogeneration retrofits; heating plants are designed for replacement, and cutting total energy costs in half will probably allow enough time and funds to engineer and install the insulation, solar and other changes required for long-term viability.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 3 Aug 05

I'm the one who originally suggested this.

Obviously, the "means" of making a whole new town wouldn't work everywhere. My point, however, is that it would be easy (and not as uneconomical as you might think) for a city to require new construction, at least, to be at least partially solar-powered. My town in Wisconsin has a new business park going up for example. It could easily have required that all the buildings have some solar power. Sadly, it didn't, but that was more along the lines of what I am talking about.

Posted by: Al on 3 Aug 05

Mass relocation is one idea I had for Sydney, NS which still hasn't begun cleaning up its Tar Ponds. You can have people trickling out of a community, or move the whole.

Moving whole cities should not be the first idea that comes to mind, but when a town or city is massively polluted or flooded several times a decade it starts to make sense.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 3 Aug 05

Its how america works actauly. If a place is too old people move to a new place and the old place dies back. Happens to be how the world has worked for ages realy the entire world is littered with abandoned cities left because somewhere else was simply better.

Posted by: wintermane on 3 Aug 05

Hmm, perhaps I wasn't clear enough in the article. My main point was that, when disaster strikes a community, the standard solution is to rebuild it how it was, but the smart solution is to think about how it could be, and build that instead.
In southern (and even some middle) California, whole neighborhoods get wiped out by wildfires, and then people stupidly go right back and build the same houses they had before, only to get destroyed by fire again ten or twenty years later. With forethought, you can avoid this _and_ make your town better than it was before being destroyed.

Posted by: Jer on 3 Aug 05

Worse still, such rebuilding too often results in *worse* conditions -- the rebuilding in the Oakland hills after the 1991 fires ended up with bigger, less efficient, "McMansion" homes just as prone to fire damage and far less sustainable.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 3 Aug 05

Pliny Fisk of Center for Maximum Building Potential or Max's Pot did a lot of work around sustainable disaster relief back in the 80s and 90s. He lives in Austin. Maybe Jon Lebkowsky can do a shout out. Pliny is truly worldchanging and has been working on local solutions for world problems since the early 70s. He's a trip and a half.

I remember him talking about some of the ideas he had after one of those years of devastating Mississippi floods. He even had some DOE and maybe FEMA contracts as one point.

Posted by: gmoke on 3 Aug 05

I worked with Pliny and Gail at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin for a couple of years. I'll drop 'em a line, but they're famously busy, especially in summer.

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 3 Aug 05



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